AUBURN, Ala. — Corey Grant’s health last Saturday fluctuates depends on who you ask.
According to Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, the junior running back was far from being in optimum condition.
“We didn't make a big deal of it, but he was banged up,” Malzahn said Wednesday. “He wasn't anywhere close to 100 percent, so that had something to do with it.”
This came three days after offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Grant’s ankle may not have been in perfect shape, but it was good enough to play on.
“The kid was pretty healthy,” Lashlee said. “He had a little bit of a tweaked ankle, but he was 100 percent in our book and ready to go.”
The Opelika, Ala., native carried just two times, finishing with nine yards. But arguably the fastest player on the team being slowed down due to an ankle injury didn’t adversely affect the Tigers’ rushing attack as a whole. Fellow junior Tre Mason picked up the slack, finishing with 132 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries.
It was the fourth time Mason had topped 100 yards rushing in his career and the first time against a Southeastern Conference opponent.
“Tre was hot and you could tell he was running good, he was running strong, so we just stayed with the hot hand,” Malzahn said. “The good thing for us is that we've got three guys we feel good about. Obviously, Tre is the most experienced guy in that group and he just did an outstanding job and made some very tough yards.”
Despite Mason’s standout performance, Malzahn cautioned reading too much into it. One game won’t make Mason the bellwether running back, as the coaching staff is too pleased with the versatility Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne provide to let one player handle the majority of the carries.
In Artis-Payne’s case specifically, Malzahn has been impressed with what the junior college transfer has accomplished just four games into his Auburn career.
“He's a big, strong guy,” the coach said. “He protects well. He's more of a north-south guy and he's got some quickness about him, too. I think the more he plays, the more comfortable he'll get with our blocking schemes and everything that goes with it.”
Receiving corps looking to replace Denson's production
Auburn knows it won’t have Jaylon Denson for the rest of the year. The junior receiver underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon in his left knee on Tuesday.
Malzahn didn’t downplay the loss, acknowledging it took away a key piece of the Tigers’ offense.
“That was a pretty tough injury,” he said. “That's a big blow for our offense. He was our most consistent guy, so it's going to have to be by-committee from here on out. It's good that we have an off week that we can start working some guys.”
Two players Malzahn mentioned as candidates to fill Denson’s role in the “5 position” were Brandon Fulse and Melvin Ray.
“We've kind of mixed and matched this week — two or three guys,” he said. “We've got some guys who can play multiple positions, especially the guys who have been here before.”
Jeff Whitaker has yet to play a snap this season. The senior defensive tackle has missed Auburn’s first four games after having surgery on his right knee prior to the season opener against Washington State on Aug. 31.
Malzahn was asked about Whitaker’s status Wednesday, and said a decision should be coming soon.
“We’ll probably, in the near future, talk through that,” Malzahn said. “At this point, things are still up in the air.”
Jonathan Jones hasn’t played this year, either. The sophomore defensive back broke his right ankle on wet steps just before the end of fall camp. Malzahn refused to shed light on the Carrollton native’s condition, instead focusing on the team’s injury situation as a whole.
“This has been a week that everybody that’s banged up, we’re just trying to get healed up,” he said. “As we get into next week, we’ll have more answers about everyone.”
Malzahn was more forthcoming on the staggering number of Auburn’s injuries. Never in his coaching career, he said, could he recall being around a team that has suffered so many impairments this early in the season.
“We've been playing without a lot of our impact players, and even when we get them back, they're not quite 100 percent yet, but they're getting there,” he said. “ The good thing is we're playing a whole bunch of young guys, and that'll do nothing but help us for the future.”